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Clinton Not to Blame for Rise in Teen Drug Use, Experts Say

Politics: They agree he could have been more forceful in opposition. Most believe 'generational forgetting' is the chief culprit for trend.

September 18, 1996|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Government studies have found that the use of illegal drugs, especially marijuana, has risen sharply in the past three years, an issue Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has hammered at on the campaign trail.

But does Bill Clinton deserve the blame for increasing drug use among adolescents?

Most experts on drug abuse say he does not, although they agree that Clinton has failed to speak out against drug abuse with the same fervor he has directed against cigarettes.

"I think it's a cheap shot and almost ludicrous to say kids are using drugs because of what the president did or didn't say," said Eric Sterling, president of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Everybody ought to be concerned about this steep and sudden rise [in drug use], but it doesn't make any more sense to blame this president than to blame Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford for the high level of drug abuse in the early 1970s."

Added Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor of public policy: "If I knew why kids picked up one fad this year and dropped it the next, I wouldn't have to make a living teaching. I don't think it's a matter of presidential leadership. If it were, then tobacco use by kids should be way down, because Clinton has been clear and bold on that subject."

Most experts who track drug abuse point to "generational forgetting" as the best explanation for the recent trend.

In 1979, slightly more than 16% of those who were ages 12 to 17 reported they had used an illegal drug in the previous month, when interviewed as part of the annual National Household Survey for the Department of Health and Human Services. By 1992, the percentage had fallen to a low of 5.3%.

Last year, the number had jumped to 10.9%, a doubling in three years, as Dole repeatedly has noted.

"The standard explanation for this is that it's been a long time since kids saw the really bad side of drug abuse among their friends and people they come into contact with. They don't know how dangerous it can be," said Peter Reuter, a University of Maryland professor.

Still, he and others admit to being baffled by the cyclic nature of drug use. "The truth is, we don't have a good basis for saying why this is happening. Marijuana use started falling in 1979, before anyone in Washington got interested in the problem, and it started going back up in 1992," he said.

In speeches and television ads, however, Dole has not only voiced alarm at the rise in teen drug use but has also squarely put the blame on the Clinton administration.

"Thanks to the liberal wink-and-nod policies of this administration, drug use among teenagers has not just started up but is rocketing skyward," he told an audience in Philadelphia on Monday. "Why? The fact is that the country is reaping the bitter harvest of what this administration's liberal policies have sowed."

During his first year in office, Clinton sharply cut the staffing at the office that sets federal drug policy, Dole pointed out. Clinton subsequently restored the office to its previous staffing level and appointed retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey as its director earlier this year.

The president, Dole charged, "has turned 'Just Say No' [the anti-drug slogan during the Reagan administration] into 'just say nothing.' "

In ads that began running this week, the Dole campaign targets Clinton even more on the drug issue.

"Under Clinton, cocaine and heroin use among teenagers has doubled. Why? Because Bill Clinton isn't protecting our children from drugs," the announcer intones.

If elected, Dole has said, he would use the military in the fight to stop the flow of narcotics into the United States and aggressively prosecute all drug crimes.

"When I'm president, I don't intend to wink at drugs. I intend to wipe them out," Dole said.

Dole's ads and speeches avoid pointing out that federal spending for the drug war has risen steadily during the Clinton years, from $12.2 billion in the 1993 federal fiscal year to a proposed $15.1 billion for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

In addition, while the Republican challenger has correctly highlighted the recent trend in teenage drug use, his use of percentages may exaggerate the problem, some experts said.

"They are talking about cocaine use 'doubling,' but it doesn't sound as extreme if you say that 8 in 1,000 are using it, up from 3 per 1,000," said John P. Morgan, a pharmacologist and drug expert at the City University of New York Medical School.

The Clinton campaign, in its own ads firing back at Dole, points to the fact that as a senator, Dole voted against the creation of a "drug czar," who heads the same White House-based office he now blames Clinton for underfunding. The ad also notes that Republicans in Congress voted to cut federal funds for anti-drug education programs in schools.

While many drug experts doubt Clinton's low-key approach to drugs explains the recent trend among teenagers, most also say the president should have spoken out more against drug abuse.

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